Where others fear to tread: Soccer Moms sue FIFA

By Paul Gardner

Maybe it doesn't sound like a big deal, this business of "soccer moms" suing FIFA over concussion injuries. Maybe it is something that the FIFA biggies can laugh off. At any rate, you know that’s what they’ll try to do.

I mean, the very idea, these California moms -- who are they to tell mighty FIFA (and the U.S. Soccer Federation too, they’re included in the lawsuit) how to run their sport?

How serious can they be when they’re not even asking for money -- just quietly stating that, in their opinion, FIFA has not done enough to protect soccer players from the dangers presented by concussions.

Well now. They may be a virtually anonymous group who are being referred to with the silly “soccer moms” tag, they may be a bit naive in daring to take on FIFA, and in not seeking damages ... but they have a point. Indeed, they very much do.

FIFA has not done enough to raise the sport’s concussion awareness level. I have the clear impression that FIFA would like the concussion issue to go away. Until it does so, FIFA will do the minimum, issuing self-congratulatory statements that it evidently hopes will be mistaken for action. Absolutely typical is the FIFA response to the lawsuit, telling us that “FIFA has always assigned a high priority to prevention and treatment of head injuries.” “Always” here means for the past 12 years, when the concussion issue started to look ominous -- though I don’t think FIFA can be singled out for negligence, for no other sport was paying much attention to concussions.

But consider this. FIFA tells us that it has developed “clear recommendations” -- that is, medical recommendations for the assessment and treatment of concussed players. What FIFA has not done is to make any changes to the game itself designed to minimize the frequency of heading.

Referees are now instructed (or so we are told) to stop the game at once if they suspect a head injury, and to call for medical attention.

But just how seriously are these recommendations taken? The soccer mom lawsuit has arrived at the very moment when we have been presented with solid proof that the recommendations are either dodging certain actions, or that they carry no weight at all and are openly ignored by both players and referees.

Exhibit No. 1 here is the frightful assault committed by Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain in the World Cup final, about which I have already written. As a “recommendation,” have players not been told that they cannot jump heavily into another player with knee raised to head level? (And you can wonder why they would need to be told that).

If they have been so warned, then Neuer had no hesitation in ignoring the warning. Have the referees not been “recommended” to take strong punitive action against such violent fouls? If they have, then referee Nicola Rizzoli wasn’t listening, as Neuer’s foul went unpunished -- indeed, Rizzoli somehow managed to give the free kick to Germany.

A scary incident in which neither the player nor the referee showed the slightest sign of awareness that smashing a knee into an opponent’s head contravenes FIFA recommendations. Well, maybe it doesn’t -- because FIFA does not seem to have gotten round to looking at the game itself in an attempt to ban concussion-provoking play.

That, of course, is the most provocative issue. The lawsuit seems to be focused on the possible dangers of heading, in effect calling heading the root of the problem. But is it likely that FIFA will want to acknowledge that it might be necessary -- medically necessary -- to ban heading -- an intrinsic part of the sport -- could be banned?

FIFA will be increasingly vulnerable to concussion lawsuits the longer it continues with its low-key response. It has not done nearly enough. It needs to set aside a substantial grant to fund a serious, independent study of the problem (which will, of course take years to complete).

It must stop relying on the same sort of defense that eventually cost the tobacco industry billions: that there is no incontestable proof that heading (read: smoking) causes concussion (read: lung cancer), and that therefore heading (read: smoking) is just fine.

Perhaps more importantly than anything, FIFA needs to conduct an intense look at the sport itself and to establish exactly what role heading should play in it. There is room for a great deal of change there -- right up to banning heading altogether. The answer, no doubt, would be a compromise -- but it would need to be a compromise that outlaws the Neuer-style knee-to-head fouls.

That, just six weeks ago, Neuer’s foul took place, that the referee ignored it, that FIFA has nothing to say on the matter -- these all point to the same conclusion: That FIFA is not doing nearly enough to combat concussions. And that therefore the soccer moms’ legal case has substance.

20 comments about "Where others fear to tread: Soccer Moms sue FIFA".
  1. ROBERT BOND, August 28, 2014 at 3:52 p.m.

    basketball & soccer will be using helmets eventually, USE THEM NOW! Kids don't want the stigma of being the only one, or the discomfort, & only mandatory use by all will get this done!

  2. ROBERT BOND, August 28, 2014 at 3:55 p.m.

    We will never be able to prevent people from doing something stupid, however, like running into the path of a large person who has already launched into the air.........

  3. Carl Walther, August 28, 2014 at 4:47 p.m.

    I guess Mr. Bond thinks that the blame should usually go to the victim. Like the player who shoved his shoulder into the mouth of a hungry opponent.

  4. Tom Symonds, August 28, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.

    When discussing concussions in soccer, writers like Gardner trot out this heinous foul (recently the Neuer foul) or that one (the Schumacher foul), but there is never a discussion offering any empirical data on the damage done from heading or soccer-related concussions in a sport that's been played by tens of millions of players around the world over the past 125 years. It would seem that no one over the past century has ever undertaken the task to study whether center backs and center forwards who've spent a career heading the ball become incapacitated in later life? If there was a study describing the life dangers of heading, I am sure Mr Gardner would have quoted it. If a study has not been done, perhaps the reason could be that there is no reason to believe there is any long-term danger from a career of heading the ball. I'm not trying to understate that concussions are serious business, but what are the physiological facts (not what could be...but what is) concerning heading the ball? I would like to know more rather than just reading a knee-jerk reaction to unsupported claims of what might or might not be true.

  5. James Madison, August 28, 2014 at 6:02 p.m.

    Head to head, head to ground and head to body contacts are one thing. Head to ball, when done properly is quite another. I would need to see better data than has been published so far before I could support restrictions on heading by players who are 10 years old or older. My sons are in their 50s and have been heading since they learned how. Both work at occupations that demand first rate brains. I am even older and think I still have my marbles.

  6. Allan Lindh, August 28, 2014 at 6:46 p.m.

    Heading has no place in the beautiful game. Behemoths crashing into one another in front of goal, has nothing to do with soccer, nothing to do with skill -- at about the level of Club Fighting. Oh ya, and it damages kid's brains. The beautiful game is played on the ground, with feet and skill.

  7. Kent James, August 29, 2014 at 12:56 a.m.

    First, Neuer did NOT jump heavily into Higuain. Neuer got there first, and Higuain's head went into Neuer's knee (watch the clip). And even if what Neuer did were to be illegal (had Neuer been a split second later, and Higuain had gotten the ball first), referees could only penalize it after it happens, which would be too late. Competitive athletes going for 50/50 balls will collide, and people will get hurt. So Gardner is using a bad example to argue FIFA is not doing enough about head injuries. Especially when there were the glaring examples in the WC (even in the final!) of instances that demonstrated FIFA's lack of attention to the issue. That is when players clearly had head injuries, and immediately returned to play. Those instances are where FIFA should be sued, since those are clearly preventable.

  8. Kent James, August 29, 2014 at 1:04 a.m.

    As for eliminating heading from the game, though I understand the concept, I have to say heading does add a whole new dimension (and leads to some great play), so I wouldn't go that route until studies demonstrated more clearly the dangers. I've played for more than 3 decades and have always been competitive in the air; though I've been knocked out once (only for a few seconds, and it was from an inadvertent elbow, not a clash of heads), and clashed heads a few other times, I'm actually surprised at how rarely it happens, and as far as I know, I've not suffered any brain damage [insert joke here demonstrating the brain damage I've suffered :-)]. I also know anecdotes are no substitute for real data, but I wouldn't make drastic changes to the game until there's real data. And I'd rather see the head gear than the elimination of heading. Besides, we already have soccer where heading is rare; it's called futsal. It's a great game, but very different to watch (and play) than conventional soccer.

  9. ROBERT BOND, August 29, 2014 at 8:01 a.m.

    if you want a non contact sport, put a net between the players or jump in a pool....

  10. ROBERT BOND, August 29, 2014 at 9:16 a.m.

    fifafofum such a joke, holding cups in countries supporting terrorists, and country that is a terrorist; finally can go, but i'm going to Euros instead, that's in france......

  11. R2 Dad, August 29, 2014 at 10:01 a.m.

    While the Soccer Moms may seem magnanimous by not suing for money per se, the lawyers will be able to recover legal fees if they win, and when you're harpooning a whale a cash as big as FIFA there is bound to be a stream of money shooting somewhere.

  12. . Lev, August 29, 2014 at 11:34 a.m.

    Are these, I wonder, the same soccer moms who scream bloody murder (aka "show her you're there, honey", "run through him" etc...) during their child's games?

  13. Allan Lindh, August 29, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.

    No, Lev, these are the intelligent moms who realize that brain damage is forever.

  14. Margaret Manning, August 31, 2014 at 4:25 p.m.

    Good to see that someone has the intestinal fortitude to take on FIFA. Perhaps US Soccer can take on FIFA about blatant and risible corruption next?

  15. Michael Borga, September 3, 2014 at 1:43 p.m.

    Let's see if we can get some stats


    Purpose: U.S. high school athletes sustain millions of injuries annually. Detailed patterns of knee injuries, among the most costly sports injuries, remain largely unknown. We hypothesize that patterns of knee injuries in U.S. high school sports differ by sport and sex.

    Methods: U.S. high school sports-related injury data were collected for 20 sports using the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System, High School RIOTM. Knee injury rates, rate ratios (RR), and injury proportion ratios were calculated.

    Results: From 2005/2006 to 2010/2011, 5116 knee injuries occurred during 17,172,376 athlete exposures (AE) for an overall rate of 2.98 knee injuries per 10,000 AE. Knee injuries were more common in competition than in practice (rate ratio = 3.53, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 3.34–3.73). Football had the highest knee injury rate (6.29 per 10,000 AE) followed by girls' soccer (4.53) and girls' gymnastics (4.23). Girls had significantly higher knee injury rates than boys in sex-comparable sports (soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball/softball, lacrosse, swimming and diving, and track and field; RR = 1.52, 95% CI = 1.39–1.65). The most commonly involved structure was the medial collateral ligament (reported in 36.1% of knee injuries), followed by the patella/patellar tendon (29.5%), anterior cruciate ligament (25.4%), meniscus (23.0%), lateral collateral ligament (7.9%), and posterior cruciate ligament (2.4%). Girls were significantly more likely to sustain anterior cruciate ligament injuries in sex-comparable sports (RR = 2.38, 95% CI = 1.91–2.95). Overall, 21.2% of knee injuries were treated with surgery; girls were more often treated with surgery than boys in sex-comparable sports (injury proportion ratio = 1.30, 95% CI = 1.11–1.53)

    Conclusions: Knee injury patterns differ by sport and sex. Continuing efforts to develop preventive interventions could reduce the burden of these injuries.

  16. Michael Borga, September 3, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.

    The below numbers indicate the amount of sports concussions taking place per 100,000 athletic exposures. An athletic exposure is defined as one athlete participating in one organized high school athletic practice or competition, regardless of the amount of time played.

    Football: 64 -76.8
    Boys' ice hockey: 54
    Girl's soccer: 33
    Boys' lacrosse: 40 - 46.6
    Girls' lacrosse: 31 - 35
    Boys' soccer: 19 - 19.2
    Boys' wrestling: 22 - 23.9
    Girls' basketball: 18.6 - 21
    Girls' softball: 16 - 16.3
    Boys' basketball: 16 - 21.2
    Girls' field hockey: 22 - 24.9
    Cheerleading: 11.5 to 14
    Girls' volleyball: 6 - 8.6
    Boys' baseball: Between 4.6 - 5
    Girls' gymnastics: 7

    divide the above by ten since when comparing with the knee injuries those stats are based on 10,000 AE.

    So boys soccer is 1.9 and girls soccer is 3.3

    Note for those suggesting that helmets are the answer, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, all have helmets and pads and have significantly higher concussion rates. Still think helmets are a good idea?

  17. Michael Borga, September 3, 2014 at 1:50 p.m.

    So we have, if I have divided correctly,

    knees = girls' soccer (4.53) and girls' gymnastics (4.23)
    Concussion = girl's soccer (3.3) and girl's gymnastics (.7)

    Girls had significantly higher knee injury rates than boys in sex-comparable sports (soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball/softball, lacrosse, swimming and diving, and track and field; RR = 1.52, 95% CI = 1.39–1.65).

    and the most common knee injury is ???? Medial Co-lateral or MCL not the ACL (that maybe a function of HS Boys Football significance) wasn't expecting that, btw

    some of the stats in the post above didn't copy well, so we will try again

    3,800,000 concussions reported in 2012, double what was reported in 2002
    33% of all sports concussions happen at practice
    39% -- the amount by which cumulative concussions are shown to increase catastrophic head injury leading to permanent neurologic disability
    47% of all reported sports concussions occur during high school football
    1 in 5 high school athletes will sustain a sports concussion during the season
    33% of high school athletes who have a sports concussion report two or more in the same year
    4 to 5 million concussions occur annually, with rising numbers among middle school athletes
    90% of most diagnosed concussions do not involve a loss of consciousness
    An estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a traumatic brain injury-related disability (CDC)

    Now what I see there is half, more or less, of all concussions occur in Football
    I also see the comment that 20% of HS athletes will sustain a concussion.

    I would be interested in seeing precisely how that 2nd statistic was determined?

    And then there is the completely unrelated statement that 5.3 million Americans live with a traumatic brain injury-related disability. (added I assume to assist in conflating athletic injury with permanent disability?)

    How many of the disabled are from auto accidents or from military service? (Thank you every Veteran for your service)

    Amazingly, it seems that boys suffer from fewer concussions and knee injuries than girls, now why would that be?

  18. Kent James, September 5, 2014 at 9:49 a.m.

    Michael, the reason boys suffer fewer concussions than girls is obvious; we have harder heads! You probably knew that already...

  19. Anne Bidner, September 17, 2014 at 7:56 p.m.


    1) The reason for higher *Knee* injuries to female (vs male) athletes, particularly in soccer, has to do with anatomical differences that make the females particularly vulnerable to this type of injury. It's a fairly well documented phenomenon, particularly at the high school and college levels.

    2) I don't think helmets are the answer in soccer, but the "padded headbands" could help, particularly for players who've had a prior concussion, which makes repeat concussions more dangerous.(the head gear you see pro players like Ricardo Clark and Calen Carr wear in MLS, or more elaborate padded headgear like Petr Cech wears)

    3) The fact that concussions still occur despite helmets in american football, hockey, etc, doesn't mean the helmets aren't a good idea idea in those sports-- the concussion rate would likely be many times higher otherwise, and certainly the dental bills would be.

  20. Rick Estupinan, September 22, 2014 at 11:35 p.m.

    Allan Lindh,your comment about "the beautiful game"sounds like a lame joke,looks like you don't know any thing about the sport to begin with.It is enough already that players can not use their hands(except for the goalie,or a throw in,or when the game has been stopped by the referee),now,after more than a hundred yrs, you want to change the game.By the way,read the above comment by a reasonable contributor to this blog,Mr Tom Symonds.You will learn a thing or two.I myself played Football/Soccer,since I was a school boy until,I was in my forties,and I never experience any thing serious after heading the ball many times.But,maybe you have been reading too much about the subject from American doctors.Most of them don't like the sport and would try to discourage children from playing it.

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